Why do we need diversity onscreen?


The role of immigrants and minorities in society has once again been thrust into the spotlight with the scrapping of the 457 visa program and the overhaul of the citizenship test to prioritise “Australian values”. One way to challenge stereotypes about minorities and immigrants? More diversity in film and television. By Candice Kortlever

As a Chinese-American woman living in Australia, the news about the scrapping of the 457 visas (for temporary workers, of which my partner is one) and tightening of the “Australian values” citizenship test was a real double-whammy. I felt frustrated about the message the government seems to be sending Australians: That people who are not white Australians – people like me – are to be feared and somehow are counter to the concept that is “Australian values”.

But as we know, anti-immigrant sentiment and racial stereotypes don’t just play out in high-level conversations about policy. They start small. Once, during a university screenwriting class, one of my classmates pitched a story about a tribe of people living in Antarctica. Another student asked him: “are these people of Asian descent?” The scriptwriter quickly replied, “nope, they’re just normal people.”

He apologised when I, the lone Asian in the room, shot him a Look, but followed up with: “Come on, you know what I mean.”

And I did. We all did.

There has been an ongoing controversy being played out in the media recently about “whitewashing” of roles that could (and should) have gone to Asian actors. For example: Emma Stone playing Asian-Hawaiian Allison Ng in Aloha, Tilda Swinton playing a Nepalese monk in Doctor Strange, and most recently, Scarlett Johansson playing a character originally made famous in a Japanese anime series in Ghost in the Shell.

Despite these casting decisions receiving significant media attention, it’s still not “normal” to see an Asian person in a lead role, whose first personality trait is not “Asian” or an Asian stereotype (nerds or ninjas). Asian-Americans aren’t getting cast in “normal” lead roles, and they’re also not getting cast in “traditionally Asian” roles – so where do they belong?


Digital art: Grace Jennings-Edquist

I’m a second-generation Chinese-American girl who grew up in the ‘90s. Aside from Power Ranger Trini Kwan and Jubilee from X-Men, there weren’t many Asian-American female characters on American screens.

In 2001, I was pleasantly surprised when television superhero drama Smallville cast part-Chinese Kristin Kreuk as traditionally red-haired Lana Lang, teenage Clark Kent’s love interest.

It took me a while to figure out why this was so refreshing to me. There’s no actual shortage of Asians onscreen: If I wanted to watch movies with Chinese faces, the Foreign section of the library has plenty of Chinese DVDs. It’s because, like my classmate so eloquently put it, this was an Asian-American actress in a “normal” American role. Not the usual “Asian foreigner” stereotype: a heavy, broken accent (or no English at all), usually a science nerd or martial arts expert. This was an all-American, girl-next-door role. And I want to see minorities in more roles like this, where ethnicity is secondary to personality and character.

These days, television shows Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None are steps in the right direction for representation. I love seeing roles like Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) in The Walking Dead, Agents Daisy Johnson and Melinda May (Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na Wen) in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) in Elementary. And last year’s hashtag campaigns #StarringConstanceWu and #StarringJohnCho – in which the Asian-American actors were photoshopped onto posters of movies such as The MartianMother’s Day and Friends with Benefits –  gave me hope that someday we’ll actually see them as three-dimensional and relatable movie leads.

Screen Australia recently released a study analysing the diversity in television dramas from 2011-2015 – only 18% of central characters were from non-white backgrounds, compared to 32% of the population.

“Diversity in casting and in storytelling is crucial because our culture shapes societies’ attitudes, perceptions and behaviour,” Pearl Tan, director of Pearly Productions and a founding member of the Equity Diversity Committee tells me. “It teaches us not just what is desired, but what is acceptable.”

Against the backdrop of new visa and citizenship test rules and after the political world events of 2016, it’s more crucial than ever to see a higher level of diversity in relatable, central and complex roles.

The launch this week of a not-for-profit called Media Diversity Australia (advocating “for a media that looks and sounds like Australia,” as the slogan puts it) is a good start. But we still have far to go.

Let’s have more actors like Diego Luna as Cassian Andor in Rogue One; Mike Colter as Luke Cage in the title Netflix series; John Boyega and Daisy Ridley as Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens. How about British-American Lewis Tan starring in a Hitch-like romantic comedy, or Arden Cho as the lead in a John Green YA-novel adaptation? And with the plethora of (mostly white and male) superhero franchises, wouldn’t it be revitalising to have movies about comic book heroes like Ms. Marvel (Pakistani-American Kamala Khan) or Spider-Man spinoff Silk (Korean-American Cindy Moon)?

We have a responsibility to “normalize” everyone – no matter what culture, race, or religion a main character hails from, no matter their age, body type or sexuality, no matter their citizenship status or visa type. Not only would it be great to see“myself”represented more, but representation and diversity in media is a key step in combatting the racism and xenophobia that is increasingly being touted by politicians and the alt-right.

“Societal norms and our unconscious bias are shaped by entertainment, media and advertising,” Tan tells me.  “More inclusivity in our art leads to more inclusive societies.”

And that’s just what the world needs more of right now.

(Photo: Candice Kortlever. Digital art: Grace Jennings-Edquist)